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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Where Do They Go?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, December 8, 2012.)

That’s not a new question. Hunters have been asking it since long before the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s herd reduction policy reduced the deer population. I heard that question many times when I was young, when we had lots of deer. Though it was 40 years ago, I can still hear my uncle complaining, “We’ve hunted all week and have hardly seen anything since Monday.”

When humans invade their space, 
deer head for places where we don’t go.

Back then no one had ever heard the words “antler restrictions” or “herd reduction.” Spike bucks were common, they were legal targets, and most hunters would shoot them. And the doe population was high. Hunters would see 30, 40, maybe 50 deer a day – thought we had no way of knowing how many we were seeing two or three times, as they pinballed from hunter to hunter on opening day.

Then, a few days into the first week of buck season, the deer would seem to disappear. Hunters had a hard time finding them, and it had little to do with the deer being shot at. It had everything to do with a million people roaming the woods.

I’d bet that if an army of orange-suited hunters entered the woods on opening day even without rifles, deer would become scarce by Wednesday, even though none of them would have been killed by the army of unarmed nimrods.

Regardless of whether the deer population is high or low, several factors turn to the advantage of the deer after opening day.

First, deer aren’t stupid. When we humans invade their space, they head for places where we don’t go. They do that whether we’re carrying guns or not. Deer head for security cover where they know they’re safe.

Security cover might be only an acre or two in size, or it might be a hundred-acre clearcut. It’s a place where hunters don’t go or tend to avoid. It’s a place where deer don’t need to travel far for food and water. It’s a place where deer can capitalize on their defenses – they’ll smell predators coming (including hunters) and can see them without being seen.

Second, deer become almost completely nocturnal. They quickly learn that hunters leave the woods at night, and that’s when they’re free to move.

Here’s where a little biological knowledge comes into play. Deer are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is small, and fills up quickly, so deer feed about four times in each 24-hour period. In winter, they need to feed only once during daylight; the rest of their feeding can be done during darkness. If a deer can do its mid-day feeding within the security cover, a hunter has almost no chance of seeing it.

Third, the Pennsylvania rifle season comes after the rut. Bucks, for the most part, have stopped cruising for does, and are hunkering down trying to replenish the resources they used up during the chase so they can survive winter. They’ve stopped taking risks. And does are conserving energy that will need to be put into the fetus.

The disappearing act deer pull as the rifle season winds down and winter takes hold only means they have made the dramatic transition to winter survival mode. That’s why you may not find them where you found them on opening day.

For the late rifle season and winter muzzleloader and archery seasons, it will pay to learn where deer sanctuaries are. But never enter them. Also, if you see deer feeding at mid-day, their sanctuary area won’t be far away.

Find well used trails into and out of them. Set up two or three stands to along those trails. Take advantage of wind direction for early morning and late afternoon ambushes. If the deer are moving at those twilight times, you have a chance to take one.

Add a little luck to the equation and you won’t be asking, “Where do they go?”


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